Je t'aime, La 2CV

Owners of the much-derided vehicle have held the biggest car rally in French history. John Lichfield went along for the ride

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The Independent Online

In a place like Salbris, in the empty, green heart of France, any traffic jam is an event.

The town saw an event this week which would have raised eyebrows anywhere in the world: a five-hour traffic jam composed almost entirely of Citroën 2CVs.

The flimsy-looking but iconic little car was once described as the product of "an illicit liaison between a deckchair and a Nissen Hut". More than 7,000 surviving examples of the "Deux Chevaux" or "umbrella on wheels" gathered this week in the small town (pop 6,000) just below the great bend of the river Loire.

They had driven, slowly, to Loir-et-Cher from Sweden and Slovenia, from Finland and Finisterre, from Holland and Halifax. Over 5,000, from 40 countries, had registered in advance. More than 7,000 cars turned up. Some people put the figure at closer to 10,000.

So many appeared on the first day of the five-day rally on Tuesday that the roads around Salbris were gridlocked for five hours with 2CVs, and their close relatives the "Ami", the "Dyane" and the open-top, "jeep" version, the "Méhari". Organisers say that, even accepting the conservative estimate of 7,000 cars, the "19th world gathering of friends of the 2CV" will have been the biggest automobile rally in French history when it concludes today.

Why such devotion to a little car that was mocked for its looks, and performance, by auto-snobs throughout its 42 years of production (1948-1990)? Why such adoration for a car which has a body like an upside-down pram, a corrugated bonnet, a canvas roof and wheels like saucepan lids?

Xavier Audran, international organiser of the event, said: "The 2CV is a passion, a way of life, not just a car. It is a blissfully simple vehicle, unlike the shiny boxes of complex electronics that they make today.

"Anyone can learn how to maintain and repair a 2CV for themselves. Women, for instance, adore the deux chevaux. There are almost as many women 2CV fans at this gathering as there are men."

Mr Audran, 43, an agricultural consultant, met his wife, Anne, at a 2CV rally. They are now happily married with a family of eight cars – all Deux Chevaux of course.

The 2CV was the mid-1930s brainchild of Pierre-Jules Boulanger, the head of Citroën. Long before the advent of the Volkswagen "Beetle", Mr Boulanger spotted a market for a cheap, easily maintained "people's car" to replace the horse and cart on French rural roads and fields. He wanted to create an "umbrella on wheels" that could carry 50kg and four people at up to 60kph (37mph) and cross a ploughed field carrying a basket of eggs without breaking them. The canvas seats were removable to allow sheep or other small animals to ride in the back.

The prototypes were hidden during the Second World War to keep them out of the hands of the Germans. A couple of armoured divisions of 2CVs might have altered the course of the war. The five surviving 1930s prototypes appeared together in public for the first time in Salbris this week.

The "Toute Petite Voiture", or 2CV Type A, was finally unveiled at the 1948 Paris motor show. An advance on the original design, it could reach a top speed of 80kph and could travel for 100 kilometres (60 miles) on a gallon of petrol. Each wheel had independent suspension, with front and back linked to give a kind of wave movement if the car hit one of the many bumps to be found on French roads in 1948.

The 2CV had a light, easily-serviceable, almost indestructible air-cooled engine based on motor-cycle engines. It was held in place by just four bolts. The car had, in fact, a capacity of eight "chevaux", or eight horse power. The name "Deux Chevaux" referred to the notional, low, French taxation category into which it was cleverly designed to fall.

One of the most popular events at this week's festival in Salbris was a competition to see how quickly a team of five people could dismantle and then rebuild a 2CV. The world record, one hour and 55 minutes, is likely to fall at today's grand final.

"If you count every nut and bolt, there are only 1,000 components in a 2CV," Mr Audran said. "The average car has 7,000."

A brisk trade was under way at the stalls selling new, or second-hand, 2CV parts. A second-hand door cost €35 (£31); a headlight €25. Specialist companies will sell you all 1,000 of the spare parts needed to make a new Deux Chevaux, from a "steering rivet" for €1 to a complete, restored body at €4,000.

One of the most admired old 2CVs on display was a rare, strengthened, "PO" (overseas) model, built in 1957 to withstand African roads. The car was in the universal, 1940s-1950s shade of dull grey, now much sought after. It had been locked away, unused, in a barn in rural France for decades. Alain Bernier from Châteauroux bought it at auction three months ago for €4,000.

"It is entirely original," he said. "I just changed the brakes and put in some petrol, and zoooom!"

The car historian, L J K Setright, author of Drive On! A Social History of the Motor Car, described the 2CV as "the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car."

Outside France, though, the odd little vehicle failed to compete with the original VW Beetle or even the Morris Minor and Morris Mini. French car industry historians blame Citroën for failing to invest sufficiently in foreign factories and promotion. The Beetle cost twice as much as the 2CV but sold 20 million vehicles worldwide, compared with five million for all the variants of the 2CV. About 200,000 of these are thought to still exist – an extraordinary survival rate for an allegedly flimsy car.

Deux Chevaux production in France ceased in 1989 and in Portugal in 1990. The car failed to keep up with modern expectations of safety or speed, Citroë* said at the time.

In truth, the 2CV, though easily constructed and de-constructed by humans, was incompatible with robots. It could not survive the factory automation of the 1980s and 1990s. One of the proud 2CV owners who queued for five hours to reach Salbris and his allotted camping slot on Tuesday was Andy Merson, 43, an electrician from Halifax.

"OK, we're mad," he said. "But driving a 2CV is not mad. They are wonderful little cars. I've had five of them.

"It took us three and a half days to get here from Halifax. On the way, I collected a new wing I'd bought on the internet and fitted that. I also fitted a new ignition coil and fan belt, and fixed the roof when that came loose. It's like driving a Meccano set. You never have to go to a garage. You can always fix it yourself..."

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